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A history of the Fergus Falls treatment center
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The Fergus Falls facility was opened in 1890. Initially designed to house at least 1,000 patients, the main structure known as the Kirkbride complex cost $1 million. (MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson)

St. Paul, Minn. — The Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center, while still an imposing structure, is nothing like it was in the first half of the 20th century. Back then, when it was known as the Fergus Falls State Hospital, the facility covered hundreds of acres and regularly served well more than 1,000 patients living in a self-contained community where they received treatment, worked and recreated.

Concerned by overcrowding in its first two state hospitals at St. Peter and Rochester, the state began construction of the Fergus Falls facility in 1888. Initially designed to house at least 1,000 patients, the main structure known as the Kirkbride complex cost $1 million. The first patients arrived July 29, 1890, according to The History of the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center, 1890-2000, a collection of vignettes and facts compiled by Emery Johnson and Rose Linda Aune.

The hospital was built at a time in the 19th century when the idea of "moral treatment" of mental health patients was gaining popularity in medical circles. This included placing patients in clean and well-run facilities where they would be treated humanely.

During the 1930s, as the hospital's population boomed, concern was raised that it, too, was falling victim to overcrowding. In 1933, for example, the facility had 1,881 patients and 266 employees. The highest population, 2,078, was reached March 13, 1937, causing Superintendent Dr. W.L. Patterson to complain, "The wards have been greatly overcrowded; the beds too close together; which condition has made it difficult to handle the patients."

Today, although it is licensed for 290 beds, only 127 beds are used in the Fergus Falls hospital. In June, according to a Department of Human Services report, just two-thirds of those were filled by patients being treated for mental illness, chemical dependency and detoxification.

The city of Fergus Falls is searching for a developer that could inject new life into the campus, which includes 37 buildings on about 180 acres. In the late 1960s, when the hospital's farm operation was shut down, the facility covered 1,100 acres.

Other highlights from history include:

-- A weekly newsletter, The Weekly Pulse, was published for patients from 1933-1987, when it was converted to a monthly.

-- The hospital for many years had its own bakery. In 1933, according to one report, the bakery daily made more than 1,160 loaves of bran, white and rusk bread.

-- Over the years the hospital has seen the introduction of new treatment methods. In 1951, the hospital's work with shock therapy was featured in Life magazine.

-- The hospital was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Recently, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota listed the state hospital facilities at Fergus Falls, Walker and Willmar together as one of its 10 most endangered properties.

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